|Art by Shaina Lu|
The latest issue of Fireside Magazine is all out now, featuring five new short stories and once again harmonizing the ebook releases of the issues with the content put out for free on the website (yay!). The works range in genre, but are linked by a kind of mood that marries some more whimsical or perceived innocent things, and complicating them and giving them an added weight. The love for a pet, a family business through the eyes of a child, a date to a new restaurant, a virtual environment with a mind of its own, and even instructions for building a fantasy creature—on their surface, the stories seem to promise a lot of fun. And it’s not that they aren’t fun, but these aren’t exactly beach reads, taking those premises and crafting some wrenching and challenging experiences that interrogate safety, magic, and family. To the reviews!
“Dog Years” by Ace Tilton Ratcliff (1714 words)
No Spoilers: This story begins with a trip to the vet and ends with an obituary. In between, Kim learns that her dog, Emma, has a heart that is giving out. That she should make arrangements. And so when the time comes, she does. But the procedure doesn’t go exactly as expected. This is a quiet, rending read, one looking at the grief of losing a pet, of losing that close of a bond. Or at least the prospect of that loss. For all that the story is taking on a very delicate, hugely emotional issue, though, it manages to not lean on the idea of losing a pet as a quick and effective means to evoke sadness. Instead, it does something a bit unexpected, and one that honors the role pets play in the lives of their humans.
Keywords: CW- Terminal Illness, Dogs, CW- Euthanasia, Bargains, CW- Death of a Pet
Review: So the content warning above isn’t necessarily wrong, but I’m super happy to report that it might be a bit misleading, too, because this isn’t about a person losing their dog. Not really. Yes, the dog dies...eventually. What I love about the story though is that it doesn’t do that thing where it’s about the necessity of grief surrounding pets. Because while yes, pets tend to live short lives than humans but also trying to wrap meaning around that, trying to make that “okay” in some ways just sort of happens out of needing to be able to move on, needing to be able to heal from what it is a devastating blow. And I like that the story goes a different direction, showing that for some people it’s just not something they want to get over, and that they are completely willing to make a sort of trade. A bargain that will definitely cut their own life back but will mean that they don’t have to live without their pet. Which, I mean, for me it’s heartwarming because it recognizes the importance of this relationship for Kim, that she’s literally willing to trade years of her life away, all because she doesn’t want to live without her best friend. Some might kinda think that devalues human life, that it’s not a good bargain, but for Kim it is and I respect that, because that relationship isn’t worth less than any other pivotal relationship just because it’s with an animal. No, the dog here doesn’t get a chance to argue, but there’s still something just kind of lovely about the way that they are able to live out their lives together. Enter into whatever is after that together. It’s sweet and emotional without being as devastating as it could have been, without centering that losing a pet should just necessary because biology. A wonderful read!
“Sun, Moon, and Wretched Star” by Ashley Deng (1543 words)
No Spoilers: Willow is a young Chinese-Canadian girl growing up surrounded by people who distrust and often hate her. Her family hasn’t retained much from the flight from war, but they’ve made a small shed into a kind of altar for their ancestors. But it’s a world that they largely try to insulate Willow from, until at least she catches a glimpse of something impossible. The piece flows around what it means to immigrate and especially what it means in a community that is insular and largely homogeneous. She is the outside, the invader, the one that children at school are cruel to because they are reflections of their parents’ racism, perpetuating the cycle of abuse and bigotry that makes it so that families might think full assimilation is the only option. It’s a careful piece, for all it’s short, and it manages a hopeful, magical ending despite the heavy topics it addresses.
Keywords: Immigration, Wars, Family, Cooking, CW- Racism, Spirits
Review: I love SFF stories that involve food, and it’s interesting here to see the story of an immigrant family leaning on their cooking skills to make it in their new home. And finding that the locals aren’t exactly kind as a result, though they still will eat there. More than that, though, I love how the story tackles the very complicated place that children of immigrants are often put in. On the one hand, they’re dealing with racism on a daily basis both from adults and filtered through their peers, because racist parents often make for racism children. For Willow, it’s further complicated by the way her family seeks to insulate her from her culture, because they don’t want her to end up in their position. Because they want to see her assimilate more, thinking that in assimilation there is safety. But not only is that often not the case, as assimilating is no guarantee of success or safety, but it cuts Willow off from what could be a huge source of strength and resilience, as well as skills that at the very least have let her family live and support themselves. The pressure is strong on her to move up, which in Canada means being Canadian first, but that kind of border drawing is toxic, because for Willow it’s happening inside of her, so that she must accept the racism of the mainstream culture she’s in so that she might succeed as much as possible, all the while being held back because of that culture. And as she begins to really feel that, she’s drawn to the stories she hasn’t been told, the magic that she’s been shielded from, knowing that there’s more strength and possibility in embracing that than being ignorant of it. And it’s a great read, careful and sharp and ultimately heartwarming. Go check it out!
“On Lore” by Tamara Jerée (1274 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is in a relationship with Lore, who has a spotty employment record and a growing obsession with a local eatery that specializes in very special foods--foods that evoke nightmares, that get into your dreams. It’s a restaurant that Lore shouldn’t really be able to afford, because it’s upper class and Lore is more of an would-be artist, but perhaps more like she’s a dreamer, which makes sense given how much she comes to fixate on this restaurant. Only what the place ends up being is...maybe not what anyone was hoping. It’s a weird and creepy story, and I love the feel of it.
Keywords: Restaurants, Dreams, Relationships, Teachers, Food
Review: This story. First, I love stories that involve SFF foods and restaurants. That has not changed. And this story starts with that sort of promise, a place that cooks with dreams, that leaves people with nightmares. Only this story also deals, at least for me and my reading, with class and with security. Lore is a person who wants to eat in this place for a lot of reasons, because for them eating there comes to mean something more than just being about food. It holds something that she’s built up in her mind to be this Thing. She can’t afford it, can’t get a table on her own. Her relationship with the narrator seems to cast her as a bit of a mess, unable to keep houseplants alive, unable to hold a job, anxious about not being good at something so not wanting to try. And the narrator wants to be with her, wants to move in with her, wants to help her. And it informs the kind of...dysfunction of their relationship? The way that it’s messy, not exactly even, the narrator with a job (that they don’t especially seem to like but that they hold) and a bit more grounded but still a bit of a mess. The relationship is never fully explored but I love the complexity that I can see, serious but kept spontaneous, loving but where neither person seems entirely sure what they want, and both are afraid of rejection, afraid of interrogating their relationship too much, it seems. And the restaurant, then, is a grim presence, a shadow creeping around them. One that Lore embraces but the narrator shies away from, is rather repulsed by. For Lore it’s a bit of magic that’s been denied her, but it’s also kind of predatory, possible toxic. For the narrator, it brings out this nightmare, this feeling of being trapped, of being unable to speak, unable to retreat. The story becomes a nightmare, a creepy view into the power of the food. And it packs in such a chilling feel, evoking that feeling of wanting to wake up and being unable, being uncertain all the time if it’s a dream at all. A wonderful read!
“The Liberation of Ghost City” by Elly Bangs (1450 words)
No Spoilers: This story centers on an execution within a prison. The condemned is a person who could not be broken, a woman who resisted all attempts to break her, who managed to endear herself to basically everyone. Which ended up being her offense. Only before she’s put to death, she has a story to tell. A fable. A myth. Or maybe it’s a truth that no one really wants to accept, one that throws into question everything about the prison and even the world that contains it. It’s a rather haunting story about change, about violence, about prisons, and about hope.
Keywords: Ghosts, Prisons, CW- Torture, CW- Executions, AIs, Virtual Realities
Review: It’s an interesting move to have the story unfold from the perspective of a guard at this prison that, it turns out, represents the entirety of this world. Not from the perspective of the woman there to change things, and not from the perspective of the warden, who might be the only other person who knows what’s going on. And I think it works because the guard doesn’t know, because this story of virtual realities and abandoned technology seems like the most ridiculous fantasy. One that completely undermines the reality of the prison, which is built on violence and brutality, which, it turns out, is all about loneliness warped into hatred turned inward. And I like how the piece shows hwo traumatic it is for the AI in charge of this reality to be abandoned, to be alone and unable to understand the why. And, failing to find that, the only one to blame is themself, so that the entire world becomes about them punishing themself for whatever it was they did that led to them being alone. The manifestation of that is the main character, Curdin, and the way that he attacks Scrimm, the way their relationship is wholly violent, about brutality. And I love that the story effectively says that it’s such a terrible way to structure a world, when it’s exactly the way a lot of people want to structure the world, as essentially fallen, mankind dealing with their own kind of godly abandonment, turning their fear and anxiety about that into violence that’s turned inward, human against human. And I like that as the system is wiped out, shifted, changed, the question that ends the piece is the one that Scrimm asks. Not about their maker or their nature. But about what they do, where they go, because with their lie revealed, they have to decide where to go. How to reorganize their world in light of the truth. It’s a difficult read, but I don’t feel that it ends on bleakness, but on the resolution to embrace agency and change and a push to find a better way. A great read!
“How to Build a Unicorn” by AJ Fitzwater (1236 words)
No Spoilers: As the title might imply, this story is structured and framed as a series of instructions that’s supposed to guide the reader or other second person You toward constructing a unicorn. And it’s...a rather involved process, and one that comes with its share of grim acts and bloody details. But then, not everything worth doing is easy, and the piece seems to recognize that building a unicorn is a mix of magic with heavier elements. In some ways because building a unicorn involves having to answer why, why are unicorns absent to begin with? That opens up a lot, both the horror of the story and the hope of it, the sense that the ending comes with the crack of ice, with the breaking of chains.
Keywords: Unicorns, Instructions, Ingredients, CW- Rape, Magic
Review: This story does a nice job of taking an idea that seems like it should be bright and cheery and revealing a very different side, a glimpse of the blood and the meat and the sharp edges that need to go into a unicorn. In some ways the piece speaks to me about the ways that unicorns and rainbows are often associated with queerness, how there’s this sort of joy that goes along with them, a bright splash of color, a sense of wonder and magic. But under that the reality is something else entirely, where people are often struggling to live, struggling under the burdens of institutional barriers, pressures, injustice, and prejudices that make it difficult to survive, much less thrive. Not that the piece is necessarily about queerness, but for me it speaks to this way that people assume that making a unicorn would be about sparkles and gumdrops, about doing something like finding a hidden mystical well or collecting donated fairy dust or...something that’s more or less harmless. And here...it’s not that the building of a unicorn is a harm done, but it does seem to involve describing and tracing harm done. You have to visit butchers and glue factories and the tooth fairy in order to stitch together something terrible and powerful, something that seems to be under constant threat, something that is often exploited, pulled apart, devoured. And through the act of building the unicorn you seem to be involved in a kind of uprising. A push to reclaim the unicorn’s power for themselves. To deny the exploitation, to remind people that unicorns are fierce and not to be fucked with. Which is a rather rising, wickedly satisfying way to imagine building a unicorn, and makes for a wonderful read!